Sunday, October 16, 2016

Raining Cats, Dogs, and Stories

When you were living in the corner apartment of 3153 Barbara Court, in the buffer zone between the Hollywood Hills and what became The Valley, you had neither cat nor dog nor even a goldfish, although all three had crossed your mind.

You had a lipstick red Olivetti portable typewriter, given you by a person you assumed would become your mother-in-law. You had an eclectic collection of furniture including a sofa one aunt had admitted to paying too much for and getting too little in return. 

Given your father's then pursuit as an auctioneer of the assets of failed restaurants, you had an eclectic assortment of cooking utensils, all of which you used at least once.

At the time, you most fancied having a Beagle as a pet, but the neighbor's cat, a mashup of a gray-and-white tiger stripe and a tuxedo, had other ideas and, as matters evolved, other plans. "I guess I don't have a cat any more," your neighbor, Ray, said one afternoon at about the time for your usual cribbage game. "He seems to spend all his time here, and I have to think he actually loves you."

Thinking the matter over, you understood how, at heart, you were a dog person, but this was no ordinary cat, even taking your evening walk about the neighborhood with you and, in one bold stroke, stowed away in your Hudson Hornet, all the way to Virginia City, Nevada, where he appeared able to cope with snow, altitude, and the inner life of The Brass Rail Saloon, wherein you did much of your serious drinking.

You also thought you were a short story person rather than a novelist even though any number of literary agents explained to you how you needed at least to be proficient in the novel format if you were to get anywhere with your intended career as a writer.  

One literary agent in particular, a man whose memoir you would eventually publish, flat out told you he wanted nothing more to do with you if you continued to pursue your inexplicable fondness for the short form. He was also known in The New York Times and Publishers' Weekly as "King of the Paperbacks."

The agent was a Harvard man who, as you liked to joke, spoke two languages, English and Harvard. For his part, he observed that you wrote pretty well for a Westerner, by which he meant you were not as prolific as he would have liked because agents did not get commissions from drafts, only final manuscripts.

Thus, in those days, you were a dog person with a cat named Sam; you were a short story writer, writing novels for a man named MacCampbell. You were perfectly content with Sam, thinking you might transmogrify into a cat person. But after Sam's death, you found in a succession of cats including one named after Edna St. Vincent Millay, a vigorous awareness you were indeed a dog person.

By their nature, most novels require either a significant change, a symbolic event that encodes explanation for the outcome of the novel, or some plausible explanation for the obligatory payoff. Your vision of the short story contains a special dispensation not to close out with any authority. You call a short story's conclusion a negotiated settlement with Reality. You have on occasion spoken of the short story ending with a poised irresolution.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

One of "Us"

The neighbors were at it again, arguing with a persistence you could not ignore. When you set out to plead with them for a return to civility, you were reminded of the dramatic cliche in which police, responding to domestic squabbles, are in more danger of violence than when dealing with criminals.

Sure enough, you came away battered, mugged to the point where one of the hundred titles you'd selected with such care for your current project became the victim. Since this had happened before, you were not surprised: Writing is in a real sense a form of domestic violence--at least, the kinds of writing you do radiates such dangers.

The matter at hand this time was over a novel that needed to be included in your examination, Injury Time , by the late British writer/actor Beryl Bainbridge, a title suggested to you in the early 1980s by Digby Wolfe, with whom you were on your way to forming a deep, epic friendship. "Subversive," was the way Wolfe described the book to you.

Indeed, Injury Time, with its mordant practicality, did subvert you concept of such matters as personal comfort, boundaries, and social contact. In brief, the protagonist, Edward, although married to Helen and commuting to work in London from the outer reaches of suburbia, has entered into an affair with Binny, a coworker. Binny lives in London, where much of the affair is engaged, and has reached the point where Binny is pressing for them to host as a couple a dinner party at her London flat.

Succumbing to Binny's pressures, Edward approaches colleagues he knows to also be married and having an extramarital affair, which, so far, seems a delicious concept for story and a shrewd approach to dramatizing the contemporary ideas of extramarital activity, of relationships in general, and morality in specific.

Beryl Bainbridge, so far as you know, took up writing when her own entry into middle age, itself a vital social commentary, seemed to cause difficulty in being cast in the ingenue and young love roles to which she'd been accustomed. 

You admired her set-up in Injury Time, but were captivated by the next step in her manner of turning up the force of circumstances. Enter a group of Irish terrorists being pursued by the police. They enter Binny's apartment building at the time of Edward and Binny's dinner party, gain entrance to Bonny's apartment, then hold the assembly hostage while trying to out wait the pursuing police.

The most memorable part of the early story has Edward explaining to the leader of the terrorists that he must leave to catch the last train home, lest his wife discover his illicit activities, and the stark disbelief of the terrorist leader.

Injury Time was one of the first novels to bring you to the vision you began to develop over ensuing years of characters and actors being interchangeable, of the stage-like dramatic presence you see in story, of an actor as a writer. How, as your "neighbors" argued, could you not have such a title as an integral subject in your current book at hand?

The writing you've done on this project to date has reminded you how the hundred novels referenced in the subtitle are in many ways your writing mentors. Injury Time, and its exquisite irony of circumstance and the attitudes of its characters, led you directly to the second of the two individuals you consider your actual mentors. When you got around to asking Virginia Gilmore if she'd read Injury Time, she smiled when she told you, "She [Beryl Bainbridge] is one of us, you know."

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Dinner for How Many?

Not long ago, you hosted a dinner of the sort inspired by your late, dear friend, Digby Wolf, who wrote, produced, and directed a memorable prototype of such dinners. His version, called Dinner for One, featured a regal, elderly lady and a butler of equal age but none of the substantive bearing.

This dinner for one had the grand dame presiding over a full-course meal, with settings for all of her most cherished former lovers. Your hosted meal was in a large, filled-to-near-capacity restaurant, where your setting was the only one visible. The decorations were a small pot of flowers, asters from the look of them, a bottle of Heinz ketchup, and a bottle of Heinz mustard.

Instead of a butler, your server was a comely, smiling Native American, probably still in her twenties, name of Lianna. 

Unlike the Wolfian prototype, your guests were aspects of you, in particular, aspects you may at times have not been willing to be seen with in public, due to your regard for them and their possible regard from you. 

You began with a welcoming toast to all of them, ahead of the civility curve at least to the point where you recognized how, whatever negative traits you may have attributed to them, they had a hand in shaping you in your role as the literal and figurative host of this meal and, even more to the point, the entity of which we are all component parts.

"Could have picked a place with a better view," The Critic said.

"Not an imaginative menu," The Editor said.

"Could have been closer to a door or emergency exit," The Panic Button said.

"No need to tip twenty percent in a dive like this, El Cheapo said.

"Good choice," The Image said, "no danger of you being spotted here."

"Nevertheless," you said, then went on to tell them how glad they were all here, making a special call out to The Cynic, who was prompt in his assessment that this attempt at solidarity had less of a chance at success than a man or woman of Muslim faith being selected for a cabinet role in the Trump administration.

Each of these selves, along with a number of others who, in individual ways, caused you to think twice, indeed overthink, possibly not think at all, possibly not act at all or overact, or doubt, or lash out in uncritical response to some event or trend in your growing self, all of them contributed at length to the person you are now and the person you hope to become for at least a day before the time comes when you are no longer able to be a person, but must return to the component parts and design from which you sprang forth, bawling and fussing, these many years ago.

Like many things in the Reality of life, the meal was a negotiated success rather than a boffo hit. Someone--you don't call names in a situation like this--tried to make off with a souvenir fork, and someone got ketchup on your shirt, causing a brief argument about the best way to remove the stain and fear that tomato-based stains don't wash out.

There was also the last-minute reminder, "This is what you get for taking us to a place that serves ketchup."

All things being equal, the dinner was a success and you are now resolved to try another such meeting, this time at Trattoria Victoria, where the sea bass is excellent, or Gianfranco, where the osso bucco is superb.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Not a Very Good Wizard

Your characters must endure the pitfalls and pratfalls you contrive for them without any apparent awareness of your presence. In effect, they must be caught up in their own dreams, slowly coming awake to the Reality you've created for them, struggling to accommodate the cognitive dissonance of awakening in the Reality you've created for them rather than emerging from their own sleep.

In yet another aspect of the effect that is fiction, you, when you compose fiction, are the Wizard of Oz as portrayed by the actor, Frank Morgan, in particular when he tells Dorothy Gale, as portrayed by Judy Garland, "I am not a bad man, I'm just not a very good wizard."

You are observing your characters, listening closely to them for the clues they offer as they attempt their ways through the mazes you've constructed for them. In simultaneous gestures, you are observing their individuality and attempting to stay ahead of them, each of them and you looking for ways out of the puzzle. Both you and them experience surges of frustration and exhilaration as the process of story accelerates.

Story is the framework, the crucible, the maze. Some of your characters may come to suspect they are caught in a pissing contest between God and Satan, as brought to dramatic dimension in The Book of Job. Some of them may in effect pray for guidance or, if not of any particular religious bent, appeal to the fates for some kind of guidance. 

So be it; you are not here to engage in those levels of existential speculation. You are here to manage aspects of human behavior through the tunnels and high altitudes of choice and exacerbated circumstance.

You are not by any means attempting to lecture the reader. You are here to learn from your characters and their circumstances in much the same way you learn from your students.

Monday, September 12, 2016

In a Little While

Yet another demonstration of the ability of words to inflict damages may be found in the adjective "little," itself an improvised explosive of an adjective, meant to demean and/or damn with the syrup of faint praise.

Little, of itself, is an innocuous way of reminding us how small the consequences of a matter may be. Thus there is no reason for alarm if when, say, we are pouring milk for someone's tea or coffee, and the recipient says "A little more." 

We're still with nary a raised hackle during an attempt at a discussion conducted with civility, when we ask if our argument or vision is approaching that of the person we're engaging, and that individual replies, "A little closer."

Your attention, while reading a sprawling critical review taking in three books on a particular subject, was wrenched away from the topic at hand when the reviewer spoke of "the extraordinary little book written on the matter by X (because names are not important here.)." 

Trouble aboundeth with immediacy when you saw how easy it was to infer that the "little" book in question was extraordinary in its smallness, perhaps little more than a pamphlet, rather than a book of modest size, say one hundred sixty pages, nevertheless filled with eloquent insightfulness.

Some poetry chapbooks are sixty-four pages or an even more scant thirty-two. In reviewing such a book, you'd do well to remark on how much soul-stirring or morally upsetting matters were raised in so few pages, but you would not say of it that it was an interesting little book.  

Since you've published well over five hundred book reviews, you can also add the notion here that you would not likely want to write, much less publish, a review of a book you did not enjoy, having long since realized you would not be happy writing about a book you did not enjoy.

Many of your friends and acquaintances have in one way or another something to do with books. You cannot imagine a circumstance where you would say, "I read and enjoyed your little book," which would, to your mind, be the equivalent of diminishing the intent and importance of the book.

The same applies to friends who are actors, musicians, or some related type of performer such as lecturer, dancer, photographer.  "I saw your little performance..."  Er, no.

"Little" deserves its own chapter in any book or data base relating to the coding practise of a particular culture. "Little" reflects the user's wish to identify with an acceptable norm, where variations to the norm are graded in such additional terms as quaint, or that most heavily coded adjectives of all, interesting.

Be on guard. English is a vast sea of words, drawn from global cultures and its own innate joy of originating words, phrases, and idioms, many of which have been uprooted from their own sources of origin to perform a "greater" service to all of humanity.

If you are not careful, in a little while, you could be drenched in a tsunami of words with vague or no meanings at all.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Domestic Violence

Working on any writing project, whether a simple book review or a longer, booklength venture, can be like listening to the neighbors arguing, only to realize that the parties at each other's throats is not the neighbors but instead, you.

The current book length project has brought forth some accusations, questions of parentage, and the old schoolyard, back-and-forth litany of "Is not." Is, too!" This is as a result of you having chosen a list of the one hundred novels from which you have learned the most vital aspects of the storyteller's art in the long form. Somewhere in the back of your mind and, indeed, even in the prospectus you've written for this work in progress, was the promise to write a similar work about the hundred short stories from which you believe you've learned the most.

This last aspect of the madness, because any long form writing venture is a form of madness, guarantees yet more arguments, more name calling and recrimination, more accusations, more departures from the controlled skepticism you find yourself swimming in these days to the sudden surges of adrenaline consistent with the awareness of sharks in these waters.

A package in the familiar shape of a book entombed in corrugated cardboard arrived this morning. Nothing out of the ordinary here; you order books online the way chocolate lovers slip bags of M and M's and Godiva bars into their shopping cart. You pull at the convenience tab, which works to perfection, delivering into your hands Moonglow, the new novel by one of your favorite living writers, Michael Chabon. 

The net result being the morning is gone and you have to rush to move your car, moments ahead of the marauding traffic cop on wheels who acts as though her success on the job depends on her catching you being lax in moving your car for street sweeping.

The cover of Moonglow promises it is a novel, but after the first few pages, the text appears to be a memoir, then a biography of a first-person narrator's grandfather. Sometimes--nay, often--you are slow on the uptake; the work is fiction if it is invented. Knowing Chabon from his earlier work, which is the point here, you recognize you are holding in hand a made-up memoir as opposed to an actual one. Anything and everything are not only possible qualities of a novel, they are necessary ones.

The more you read of Moonglow, the more certain you are to finish it, and in fact, the keener you are to get on with the process, which realization has the neighbors at it again, bickering at a high, fractious pitch, the accusations rumbling like low-hanging thunder clouds.

Impeccable in its sanity is the voice that asks you, "How is it that you have not included Chabon's epic romp, The Jewish Policeman's Union?"  Never mind that you enjoyed the book, noting its traces and hints the way you would experience the brisk persistence of a fine pinot noir. Mind instead how seamlessly Chabon blended alternate history with alternate reality, mystery, satire, and social commentary. Mind how, reminiscent of the famed Jewish folk hero-legendary creature The Golem, Chabon created a character who was, among other things, a significant stretch of imagination in the form of a detective who was half-Jewish, half-Tlingit.

"How is it," that sane voice asks, "that you have not..?"

"Okay," you say aloud. "I get it." And your mind flashes on the novel you will remove from the A-list, in order to replace it with the Chabon.

"Wait, wait," the soon to be bumped novel calls out. "You knew the author. You read that novel when it was a serial in a pulp magazine. You said of it that you would give anything to write with such implicit complexity about the human condition, about themes, and individuality."

You promised it an appearance on your B-List. You argued that the unstated theme of the entire project was change, how reading brought change to your psyche, your life, and to the way you saw Reality.

"You fucker," the fated novel said, "You dumped me."

The argument still rages. You will not be surprised if the police arrive in response to an alert of domestic violence.

Saturday, September 10, 2016


When you were getting on to the point where you felt like taking on the teens, you learned one day in a classroom of the fog coming in on little cat feet. Fog was never the same from that time, nor were cats. Each time you saw fog or a cat thereafter, both held you as your father once did,up on his shoulders, above the crowd, where you were able to see the parade.

By its intrinsic nature, parades move along a route, their pace sometimes changing as an antic moment breaks free, taking charge with the energy and determination of its mischief. 

A parade becomes an excellent analogy for Reality; although its participants have some notion of what they ought to do and how to do it, parades are governed by the ruling forces of surprise and change, one often coming at the expense of the other, but also in the kind of tandem you see when watching a group of youngsters skipping along in the pure glee of some surprise or change in routine.

Everything about you is some tangible something until it changes into something else. In story, joy often takes a turn away from the parade of revelers to the place where it becomes changed into a sadness so profound that you cannot help feeling the entire universe has gone into some ritual of mourning.

Sometimes while in the process of shaving, which is to say when you are performing the act or causing individuals of your invention to shave, you look for and find traces of what you brought to the mirror when you were first beginning to shave, so eager to be chosen to play on a team in the game of adulthood and growing up that you considered it romantic and appropriate to shave. You saw traces of both your male grandparents, you saw yourself eager for the whiskers that would in time come to annoy you rather than give you the definition of your hopes.

Change paces as nervously through your stories as you paced through your teens, daring puberty to take you down,change you from the closet romantic you were into a character of your own design, a character whose voice not only changed but as well his way of engaging Reality. 

There you would be, the romantic egoist, for you were romantic in hopes its energy would move you away from shyness with a slight hint of restraint you thought only the French could have because more and more, the characters you most admired were said to have sang froid. Although it means the same thing in English and French, cold blood meant something quite changed from the mere cold blood of English; it meant detached-but-observant.

Everything about you has changed, including the way you approach story, which is not at all to tell it and explain its meanings but to work yourself into it, at enough depth for the forces of change to take hold of you and it, and while it is playing out before you, there are moments when you understand what you have become.